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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 12 In Search of Utopia
Richard Taruskin

But only in rhetoric. For the amazing and ironic fact is that, despite their mutual disdain and their bombastically expressed differences, Schoenberg and “little Modernsky” were in the 1920s caught up as participants in the same postwar reaction; and Schoenberg’s technical breakthrough of those years, the main subject of this chapter and for a long time the very emblem of musical progress, was as much a neoclassicizing or restorative effort as anything done in the name of Papa Bach.

No composer suffered a graver creative crisis in the years surrounding the Great War than Schoenberg. The war itself oddly, was not (at least consciously) a trauma for him. He enlisted enthusiastically in the Austrian army as a private despite his relatively advanced years (he was forty) and his fame in civilian life. He claimed to have enjoyed the anonymity, or at least the respite from notoriety, that the army gave him. “The war years were my peace years,” he later quipped. But maybe he also found relief in the time-consuming, mentally undemanding routines of army life from his creative problems.

For a period of a decade or more, Schoenberg composed only fitfully when not entirely blocked. In November 1913 he completed a one-act opera, Die glückliche Hand (“The lucky hand”), op. 18, sometimes translated “The Golden Touch,” on which he had been working since 1910. Between November 1914 and July 1916 he managed to complete three little orchestral songs to join a previously composed one in a set of four, published as opus 22. Opus 23, a set of five pieces for piano, was not even begun until July 1920 and not finished until February 1923. For four years, this means, Schoenberg did not complete a single composition, although he started many. When opus 23 was published in 1923, it was the first new composition by Schoenberg to appear since 1914. The long silence signaled an impasse.

Such a turn in any famous artist’s career (and especially an expressionist’s!) calls forth all kinds of biographical speculation. Doubtless psychological factors played a significant role, but there were also musical issues to be solved— or at least Schoenberg deeply felt that there were. If one compares Die glückliche Hand, the opera that arduously preoccupied him between 1910 and 1913, with Erwartung, the opera that he had written with seeming effortlessness and at white heat in the late summer of 1909, one can see (at least in suitably bespectacled hindsight) the makings of the crisis.

The glory of Erwartung had been its imaginative abandon: Schoenberg “trusted his hand,”12 as he later put it, to compose an “athematic” and “atonal” music that not even his own rational mind could comprehend at the time. In chapter 6 we saw that its touted avoidance of motivic and thematic repetition was not perfect, and that there were aspects of the score (particularly its harmony) that could be rationalized in retrospect; but the basic effort to avoid the appearance of rationalized routine and yet achieve a coherently expressive result was impressively successful. The music of Die glückliche Hand, while still atonal and in principle athematic (as any genuinely expressionistic music ought by rights to be), far more frequently resorted to rationalized (and therefore analytically transparent) procedure. There are extensive passages in imitative counterpoint. There is a lot of ostinato. One might say that the devices that resurfaced in Pierrot lunaire under cover of irony persisted in the new opera without the ironic pretext, and were therefore problematical.

The difference between the two operas is sometimes explained as a difference in gender portrayal. Erwartung, the portrait of a feminine psyche under stress, conformed to the misogynistic ideas of contemporary Viennese psychologists and sexologists like Otto Weininger, whose widely read Geschlecht und Charakter (“Sex and character,” 1903) defined women as “logically insane,” and attributed their often admired “intuition” to “a lack of definiteness in their thinking capacity,” which “gives the widest scope to vague associations.”13 These descriptive slogans are easy to apply by analogy to the music of Erwartung: “tingling and spasmodic, sensual, without structure or direction,”14 in the words of critic and composer David Schiff. The obvious organizing factors in the music of Die glückliche Hand, which concerns a masculine paragon (pretty obviously the composer’s own ego-surrogate) threatened by feminine guile, could then be seen as devices for portraying the superior mental and ethical equipage of the male.

Schoenberg knew Weininger’s crackpot writings and admired them. He even cited Weininger in the preface to his Harmonielehre as an example to his pupils and readers of “one who has thought earnestly.”15 Schoenberg’s creative crisis, in both its musical and personal (ethical, spiritual) dimensions may have had something to do with the composer’s need to lessen his reliance on “intuition,” stigmatized by Weininger as feminine (as well as Jewish, another category applicable to the recently converted and therefore squeamish Schoenberg). What had seemed a creative ideal and a glorious liberation had become something he now felt a need to exorcise.


(12) Egon Wellesz, Arnold Schoenberg: The Formative Years (London: Galliard, 1971), p. xii.

(13) Otto Weininger, Sex and Character: An Investigation of Fundamental Principles (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), p. 379.

(14) David Schiff, “Schoenberg’s Cool Eye for the Erotic,” New York Times, Arts and Leisure, 8 August 1999, p. 30.

(15) Schoenberg, Theory of Harmony, p. 2.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 21 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012002.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012002.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 12 In Search of Utopia." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 21 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-012002.xml